A marriage on the stage between contemporary “lowbrow” pop surrealist Mark Ryden and 19th to 20th Century German opera composer Richard Strauss is unexpected. Yet the Ryden-designed “Whipped Cream,” an adaptation of Strauss’s 1924 ballet by the same name in Austrian, “Schlagobers,” played at the Met Opera from May 23 to July 1, and the marriage made sense. It even carried a warning, in spite of both artists’ intent to eschew morals.
First, a synopsis of the ballet: Nutcracker-esque in its (light) plot, “Whipped Cream” follows a boy who overindulges in sweets at a pastry shop following his confirmation. He gets sick, winds up in the hospital, and hallucinates a fantasy world of candy while a creepy doctor and nurses with human-size needles fuss about him, eventually getting distracted by liquor and allowing the boy to enter his fantasy world, seemingly for good. Ryden takes this decadent plot and dresses it accordingly, throwing in a furry mythical creature (his “Snow Yak“) and elaborate candy costumes.
The original ballet didn’t aim for gravity. “I cannot bear the tragedy of the present time,” said Strauss of “Schlagobers” post collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, according to Michael Kennedy in Richard Strauss: Man, Musician, Enigma. “I want to create joy.” And he did—at the end of Act II, the boy escapes into the world of candy he so sought after in Act I.
Ryden similarly takes an apolitical, non-preachy approach to his art. “I don’t think my work is political,” he told Wertical in 2013. Though his admitted “strong liberal politics” likely make it into his art by accident, art as “a political soapbox” doesn’t stir him.
Yet Strauss and Ryden both share(d) a distaste for monotheism, Ryden quite openly. In the same Wertical interview, he said point blank, “I am strongly repelled by monotheism.” Meanwhile, a New York Times music critic, Alex Ross, wrote of Strauss, “He did not believe in God, and he saw no spiritual dimension to his art.” Strauss lived in Austria at a perilous time for Jews, and though he was not Jewish, he worked closely with Jews and had Jewish relatives. The debate of his Nazism is ongoing, but ultimately he was seen as the sort of opportunistic survivor his times demanded.
Aversion for the institution of Christianity shows itself in “Whipped Cream,” where the priest represents yet another scary caricature of an adult in the style of the doctor, and the austere confirmation is quickly eschewed for the excess, color, and hedonism of a candy kingdom. The morality, if you will (I likely won’t), isn’t one of experiencing consequences for impertinent, indulgent actions. It’s more of a New York millennial-minded “the world is your $1 happy hour oyster” framework. While we’re on the subject of millennials, it’s crucial to note that the majority of Ryden’s set is washed in “millennial pink.”
Overall, “Whipped Cream” represents much of what has come to be known as the millennial ethos. Be wary of long-established institutions (the Church, the Hospital). Take what you want and it will result in your happiness (snatch all the whipped cream in the store, pass go directly to candy heaven). Adults are separate from you and dismal (the adults in Ryden’s “Whipped Cream” wear giant, grotesque heads while the children and candy people have faces like ours).
The ballet, after all, illustrates wish fulfillment, a concept that is not so much romantic for millennials and everyone else in the current digital age as it is expected. We are all special flowers, each individually the best and not just capable of but sure to get what we want from life. Just look at our Instagrams! At our search histories! The world is at our fingertips!
Yes, Strauss wrote “Schlagobers” to “create joy” and not to preach, but remember that the joy the main character ends up with comes from the same source that made him sick and put him in the hands of a terrifying doctor to begin with. Like Ryden’s politics “inadvertently creeping” into his art, so, it seems, did the darkness of Strauss’s times. And that message today, dressed up ebulliently in Ryden’s millennial pink, can serve as a warning to those partaking in internet-obsessed, immediate gratification culture. After all, the same internet culture that delights us and opens up our world to limitless possibilities also played a big part in getting our current president elected, where he sits firmly on his Twitter throne, governing through cyberbullying. (But excuse me—Strauss and Ryden didn’t want to get political.)
“Whipped Cream” falls firmly into Ryden’s body of work in the carnivalesque. The genre is what it sounds like—a carnival, a festive collage of often juxtaposing images that, from afar, look like a delightful party. But if you look closer, a carnivalesque work reveals that unlike the best of weekend celebrations, it “ultimately refuses escapism,” wrote Debra J. Byrne in a 2005 essay on Ryden’s work. “Its aim is to confront,” she went on. “The would-be reveler is transformed into a captive spectator who is shown his or her mortality and that all is not quite right with the world. Laughter is invoked, but not for distraction—rather to trigger anxiety. At this, Ryden is a master.”
Whether he meant to or not, Ryden’s visual take on Strauss’s “Schlagobers” provokes anxiety. It beautifully illustrates horror and, through a plot of escapism, doesn’t let viewers escape today’s realities.